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Soaring through life

World War II veteran William Dinsmore celebrates 100 years of living

When William "Uncle Bill" Dinsmore turns 100 on Friday, his family and community will celebrate a life marked by persistence amid adversity and abiding love.

Dinsmore, a 63-year Greenmeadow neighborhood resident, test pilot and industrial engineer, doesn't look a day past 80. He might need a little help from his caregiver, Sherl Shirley, for cooking and errands, but he is still very much independent. He uses a computer to do his banking, makes all of his medical appointments and emails his doctors. He uses FaceTime on his iPad to talk to his family when they are out of town.

For those who seek a long life, he has one bit of sage advice: "Everything in moderation — that includes gin."

Dinsmore grew up in lush lands, born in 1917 in Troy, Ohio.

"My dad was a wholesale nurseryman. He had 200 acres. He had all kinds of trees, full-grown trees. He had his own railroad siding, packing shed and greenhouses and about 60 people working for him. I loved it, I loved it, I loved it," he said.

But he faced many hardships. His father died when Dinsmore was 10 years old, and the business was foreclosed upon in the Great Depression. After the government took the property, the Waco Weaver Aircraft Company purchased the land in the early '30s, building a factory and a landing field. The reversal of family fortune paved the way for a lifelong passion and career.

"We had a great big oak tree, and I was just young. I would climb up in that oak tree and watch them come in and land. ... That's where I got the wanting to fly. I grew up with it, the Waco planes," he said.

After high school, Dinsmore planned to attend the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, but he could not pass the entrance exams. Most people accepted at Annapolis had been to prep schools, he later learned. Still, the academy said he could be reconsidered for admission if he made acceptable grades in math and English at an accredited university and sent them his scores.

Dinsmore, having no money, worked as an office boy at the Hobart Manufacturing Company in Troy to earn money to attend Ohio State.

"I studied, studied, studied, studied and ended up with acceptable grades for Annapolis. ... That was 1937. I had two years there. Wonderful time," he recalled.

But after those two years, he went back to work to earn more money for his tuition. He returned to Ohio and worked for the Frigidaire Division of General Motors maintaining the production equipment at the plant. It was there that he first saw his future wife in a window across the way from his workbench, he said.

She spelled her name "Dorthy." Neither she nor he liked it, so on their first date, Dinsmore gave her a new name: Suzie.

"It just fit her," he said.

But actually, he named his wife after his 1935 Ford, he admitted. He still has the car, with its plush black leather and sleek white paint, sitting in the garage.

In love with Suzie and with World War II looming, Dinsmore didn't want to get drafted. Wanting still to fly airplanes, he volunteered for the Army Air Corps. After 30 weeks of training, he graduated in January 1942, just after Pearl Harbor. Suzie pinned on his wings, and they went right to Kelly Field Chapel and got married, he said.

Dinsmore was stationed in a Washington, D.C., sub depot as an engineering officer and test pilot, primarily maintaining airplanes and testing them. All the important people from Washington ended up at Bolling Field eventually, needing their planes to be fixed, he said.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his whole entourage — the bells and whistles, the escorts, the people, the flags flying — arrived to meet a visiting dignitary, a thrill for the young pilot, he recalled.

Dinsmore flew 26 different planes as a test pilot. He experienced his fair share of mishaps and more than one blessing, he said.

He was supposed to co-pilot a B-25 bomber but instead was asked to give a Bell Aircraft representative a tour of the facility. During the tour he heard a horrible engine roar overhead. The left engine had quit and the bomber crashed.

"Everybody on board was killed," he said.

Through the GI Bill, Dinsmore finally completed his degree in industrial engineering at the University of Florida in 1951. He began working at United Airlines' Maintenance Base in the industrial engineering department in Palo Alto.

He and Suzie bought their home from developer Joseph Eichler in 1954. There was an old farm where Cubberley High School is now and only two streets had houses. The roads weren't even paved when they moved in, he recalled.

In 1958, he began a 24-year career at Lockheed in the Space Systems Division: He helped build the launch bases at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, satellite tracking systems, and later, spy satellites. Suzie was a housewife. The couple attended Peninsula Bible Church on Middlefield Road every Sunday.

"We had a wonderful life," Dinsmore said of his nearly 50 years of marriage to Suzie, who died in 1990.

They lived a life with much adventure: vacationing in Las Vegas and Florida, each era of his life archived on dozens of mixtapes labeled with all the places they'd lived and holidays they'd shared.

Suzie's portrait still hangs in almost every room.

Dinsmore pointed to Suzie's picture above the fireplace.

"I watch TV, I turn everything off, and when I go to bed, I look up at her. It brings the tears. ... I'm getting them still," he said.

But Dinsmore says his present life is rich.

"The nicest part of life right now (is that) I have a wonderful, wonderful family," he said.

In addition to Shirley, whom he calls "my wonderful caretaker," his niece Dedie has become "almost a daughter," he said.

The couple did not have children, but Suzie's siblings' families were theirs as well. Dinsmore quickly and affectionately became known as "Uncle Bill" to several generations of children and grandchildren. And that's where his 100-year story continues.

"(They) spoil me rotten," he said.


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2 people like this
Posted by Midtown resident
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 20, 2017 at 4:31 pm

A great story. Makes me feel like the worlds greatest successes are vastly under reported.

3 people like this
Posted by Penny
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 20, 2017 at 7:20 pm

Penny is a registered user.

Uncle Bill has been a wonderful neighbor and friend to my oldest daughter since she was two years old. They met on a sunny summer day when we were out for a walk. She made a b-line for his front door (I still don't know why.) and knocked. Bill answered the door and was so friendly and kind, his house became a regular stop for her.

Bill is Uncle Bill to many neighborhood children he'd talk with while he was out gardening. He is a friendly fixture. Still lively and 100.

My daughter is off at college now, so she has to miss his party, but she will surely mark the day with him somehow!

Happy Birthday, Bill! Best wishes for continued good health and joy.

1 person likes this
Posted by Ruth Ann
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Oct 21, 2017 at 12:20 am

We all love Uncle Bill. He is so upbeat and loving. Plus, Uncle Bill always has some great stories to tell when we stop by. We are very fortunate to have such a wonderful person in our neighborhood.
Happy 100th Birthday Uncle Bill!

Like this comment
Posted by Rose
a resident of Mayfield
on Oct 21, 2017 at 5:50 pm

Palo Alto Weekly — Thank you for this happy and inspiring story!

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